Going into A Prayer Before Dawn, I wasn’t sure what to expect; this is a brutal, testosterone-driven experience like no other. A film which never slows down in its pace (it’s relentless and full of energy), it’s not shy showing you the harsh reality of life inside a Thai prison, and it delivers blow-after-blow of pure, shocking content. I was holding my breath at the end, unable to take my eyes off the screen, despite being quite sensitive when it comes to violence. And, this film is very violent, don’t underestimate that. There are moments where you struggle to comprehend what is occurring on the screen, and it’s not just acts of physical violence but sexual, mental and emotional violence too. Unlike Only God Forgives, another brutally violent film based in Thailand, we feel a degree of empathy and compassion for the lead character, and unlike Only God Forgives the violence in A Prayer Before Dawn is never sensationalized or appears glamorous, instead, we feel every punch and blow.
Based on the extraordinary, deeply honest and hard-hitting memoir by English boxer William “Billy” Moore (Joe Cole), the film focuses on Billy’s time behind bars at two of Thailand’s toughest prisons, Chiang Mai and Klong Prem. The film opens with Billy being arrested for selling ya ba (a highly addictive form of crystal meth); not much information is supplied to us, and like Billy, we struggle to follow what is happening. We know very little about Billy’s background. How did a young man from the UK end up being a boxer in Thailand, and how did he become an addict and dealer? However, this is an excellent decision by director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, because less is more. The decision to have little dialogue and to leave much of the film unsubtitled helps to further alienate the viewer, and align us with Moore.
Sauvaire’s film is an unblinkingly, exhausting, violent force of nature. It’s a grim film full of blood, sweat, other bodily waste, vomit and semen, often splattering the camera lens, which, in turn, causes the viewer to wipe their faces in a natural bout of instinct. My best advice is not to watch this film if you have a sensitive stomach because although this film is well shot, acted and has a compelling story, it’s not going to be for everyone. There are men tortured over loudspeakers, gang-raped at knife point, and pummeled within an inch of their lives for a hit of ya ba. And in one shocking scene, Billy is threatened by a man with a syringe full of HIV positive blood. Billy struggles to survive and adjust to the rules of the prison, and fights even harder to beat his addiction. After beating up some men on the orders of a corrupt prison guard to get a fix of ya ba, Billy sees the error of his ways. It is the prison’s boxing team which becomes Moore’s only solace, and as a result he becomes determined to win the annual championship in order to find a sense of meaning in the chaotic world that surrounds him. A little bit of hope can keep a man afloat.
The combination of handheld camera at close range and Nassim El Mounabbih’s astonishing sound design heightens the viewing experience. This is a very claustrophobic film with tightly framed shots crammed full of people in order to capture the sense of these overflowing jail cells. The effective use of sound, such as the thumping of boxing gloves, blood pounding in the eardrums, of flesh smacking flesh, deep heavy breathing, help to create this disorienting atmosphere. And the use of silence is astonishing as it builds tension in the boxing scenes. Although the sport of boxing is a big part of this film, A Prayer Before Dawn is not a sports movie; this film isn’t about the glory of winning a fight, but solely about staying alive, and surviving at all costs.
Cole is remarkable as Billy and I bought Billy’s transformation from a loser British expat to a fighter and marveled at how he used boxing to release his fears and frustration. It’s a physically demanding role, and Cole manages to convey so much raw emotion without speaking. Not only was the film shot in an actual Thai prison, it also features non-professional Thai actors, with ex-prisoners and real-life boxing champions, this brings a level of detail and lived experience to their performances. Although, this will not be to everyone’s tastes, A Prayer Before Dawn is about finding humanity, compassion, empathy and determination even in the most hellish of places, something we can all take away with us.